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tv   Dateline NBC  NBC  January 16, 2017 2:00am-3:01am PST

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everyone says that you and your sister were your mom's life. >> yeah. amazing person. committed to family, committed to my sister and i. and then, five years later, gone. >> she was a gorgeous girl, a model who became a mom. >> i said, "you guys made some good-looking kids." >> oh, they sure did. >> on the eve of her son's 5th birthday, she vanished. >> the whole time, we're all trying to talk without the kids hearing us about, "where is she? what happened?" >> when a woman disappears, we know police will have questions for the man in her life. in this case, that wouldn't be so simple. there was the estranged husband, who admitted to an argument that once landed him in jail.
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>> she came at me and i grabbed her by the arms. and then she called the police. >> reporter: then there was the secret boyfriend who wasn't telling all he knew. >> that was suspicious to police that he wasn't up front about that from the beginning. >> and there was a third man, the former colleague with a crush. >> cliff shared with friends that he had found the love of his life. >> so you have three potential suspects? >> yeah, it's a tangle. >> could investigators unravel it? >> we're asking ourselves, what does this mean? >> would her family ever find justice? >> it's just 17 years of built-up emotion, you know? >> i'm lester holt, and this is "dateline." here's andrea canning. reporter: it's a celebration no mother would ever want to miss, a child's 5th birthday. but suddenly, she was gone. out of his life. >> there's nothing anybody could
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ever do to fix that or, you know, repair that missing part. >> reporter: his mother, sandi johnson, was outgoing, energetic and an awesome mom. >> those kids were everything to her. >> reporter: so why wasn't she there to sing happy birthday to her son? >> all they knew was that she just disappeared into thin air. >> reporter: she should have seen you get married. she should have seen you go into the military and become a police officer one day. >> it's the toughest thing i've ever had to deal with. >> reporter: it was heartbreaking. and baffling. >> it was a true mystery as to what happened to sandi. >> reporter: that true mystery, what happened to the vibrant young mom who vanished from a seattle suburb, endured for years. those who loved sandi johnson, those who longed for her return, waited almost two decades for answers and a slice of justice.
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the story starts in april 1996. april 26th to be precise, a friday. in the seattle area, the weather was doing what it does in this part of the world. clouding up and spritzing rain. that day sandi johnson, a 28 year-old wife and mother, had a to-do list as long as her arm. >> she was going to run and do all her errands that day to get ready for her son's birthday party the next day. >> reporter: vicky fulkerson was a good friend of sandi's. they bonded in the hospital, after their sons, both premature, were born on the same day. sandi was a little younger than vicki, a tiny woman with a huge zest for life. >> oh, i loved being around sandi. she just seemed like she really cared about people. >> reporter: no one knew that better than sandi's cousins, gina boone and nanci brown. they all grew up together. >> sandi is action, action, move, go, do, do, talkative, laugh, always. she's a mile a minute.
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>> yeah. i would say. >> reporter: and beautiful. >> gorgeous. >> reporter: tiny little thing. >> tiny. >> sure. like, a double zero. >> reporter: she modeled even? >> she did some modeling, actually, yeah. i think i remember she did some kind of a bridal thing at one time. >> uh-huh. >> reporter: that friday, sandi took the day off from her job at a car dealership to prepare for the party. sandi's husband greg says she was always a mom first. >> everything was about the kids, you know. so everything revolved around the kids. >> reporter: how excited was she to be a mom? >> i think she was really excited. i think that's what she wanted. yeah, she liked it. >> reporter: sandi had a plan. the kids would spend the day with vicky, while she zipped around town. that morning she left vicki a message on her phone. >> you can pick up sean's birthday cake after 3:00 today, and i'll be down right after that. i'll probably see you around four-ish. okay, talk to you later. bye-bye. >> reporter: but 4:00 came and went, and no sandi. vicky's hands were full with her kids and sandi's.
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at first, she wasn't too concerned. >> maybe around 4:30 or 5:00 i started calling her because i thought, "you're not here yet, sandi." and it just wasn't like her. and i was just feeling frustrated. >> reporter: the hours went by and still no sandi. vicky's frustration turned to anger. but then she started to worry. around 7:00 that night, she began working the phones. >> we started calling greg, then we started hospitals, the police. we were just on the phones. we were worried. >> reporter: vicky and her husband kept sandi's kids at their home that night. did you sleep at all that night? >> no, probably not much. i don't really remember. it's a fog. it's unreal. where is she? what could have happened to her? >> reporter: so the next morning, still -- >> we had to get up and get -- >> reporter: no sandi. >> no, still no sandi. had to get up and get ready to go to the birthday party. just told sean, "it's okay. you know, your mom will be there." >> reporter: meanwhile greg johnson was looking around his home. there was nothing to indicate that sandi had left in a hurry
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and somehow forgot to tell anyone, as strange as that would be. >> all her stuff was there. called the police. called, you know, family, my sister. i think i probably called her father. >> reporter: were you in a full on panic at this point or are you still kind of, like, "okay, you know what, maybe she ended up going out with some friends or -- " >> no, i was pretty worried. just the circumstances that were at the house, i knew there was trouble, or something not right. >> reporter: the birthday party for sean went ahead on saturday. there was a cake and some presents, but no sandi. the adults huddled and whispered. >> the whole time, we're all trying to talk without the kids hearing us about, "where is she? what happened?" >> i think we made a second call to the police department in the, you know, the afternoon. >> reporter: did you think, "okay, we've got this party. sandi will show up for the party?" >> that was our hope. >> we all tried to proceed as normal. greg was crying like crazy,
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just, you know, he had glasses on. he was trying to hide it. but, you know, there were tears. >> reporter: do you remember anything about that day, your 5th birthday? >> unfortunately, i don't, you know. >> reporter: but sean johnson, now grown, knows that was the day his life changed forever. the day the awful started. >> why isn't my mom around? you know, like, why would this happen? you know? >> reporter: they were the very questions the police would start asking too. because that same night they were called to a seattle supermarket. store employees had noticed an abandoned vehicle in the parking lot. it was sandi johnson's car. her keys were in it. so was her cell phone. but there was no sign of sandi. >> detectives begin the search for sandi, than investigation that would turn into an odyssey.
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when we return, that first break, finding sandi's car gives police hope. but a second clue will throw them for a loop. >> we're asking ourselves, how does this come together? what doe i will never never wash my hair again now, i fuel it new pantene doesn't just wash your hair, it fuels it. with the first pro-v nutrient blend, making every... ...strand stronger don't just wash your hair fuel it fuel your hair. because strong is beautiful. school lunch can be difficult. cafeteria chaos. one little struggle... can lead to one monumental mishap. not with ziploc easy open tabs. because life needs ziploc. sc johnson.
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i wanna go viral. going viral? get scrubbing bubbles, clean and disinfect. 20,000 views! what? oh, it looks so clean in here. >> reporter: hours after sandi johnson was reported
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missing, the police made a disturbing discovery. sandi's car, a ford escort station wagon like this one, was found in the parking lot of a seattle grocery store. the doors were unlocked. the keys were in the ignition. sandi's cell phone was lying on the seat. but sandi herself was nowhere to be found. cousins, gina and nanci. when they found sandi's car, did you go from thinking, "okay, she's missing, maybe we'll find her," to -- >> she's gone. >> reporter: there's a chance she's gone? >> she's gone. >> oh. i figured if someone had her, that's it. >> reporter: captain scott strathey, a detective for the king county sheriff's department back in 1996, was assigned to the case. it must have been extremely alarming from the perspective of law enforcement, when you find sandi's car abandoned with the keys and her cell phone inside? >> at least it gave us an area to focus upon. the vehicle was located in southwestern king county. >> reporter: the cops noted an unusual detail.
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the driver's seat was pushed back. sandi, who was tiny, drove with the seat in the forward position, as close to the steering wheel as possible. then, just as they were processing the car, the cops got another break. sandi's wallet was located lying in the parking lot of a hardware store. oddly enough, it was miles from her car. they were puzzled. >> we're asking ourselves, how does this come together? what does this mean? >> reporter: and, what does it tell you when you find a car and a wallet, and no sandi? >> well, sandi clearly had been taken away from her vehicle in some manner. and at that point, we were very focused on why was this vehicle located here? why was her wallet found across town? >> reporter: to detectives it all added up to foul play. >> it was a very strange and compelling case. a mother of two small children essentially just dropped off the radar screen.
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>> reporter: was it baffling to the whole police department what happened to sandi? >> yeah, her disappearance became a priority with the sheriff's office right away. >> reporter: sandi's friends and family put up flyers and joined search parties in the greater seattle area. but there was one notable exception. were you p search? >> not too much. >> reporter: why not? >> i just couldn't do that. i just stayed around the house with the kids and family. >> reporter: did anyone question that, "why isn't he out looking for her?" >> never questioned me. maybe amongst themselves. i don't know. >> reporter: but detectives were already taking a good long look at sandi johnson's husband, digging for details about the state of the couple's marriage. >> the first thing you're doing is looking at those people that are closest to the person that is missing. you have to. so, it made perfect sense to focus on the husband early on. >> reporter: it always seems like the spouse. >> in this particular case, we
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really didn't know the dynamics of what had happened in their marriage. it's up to us to find out, what are the details. >> reporter: detectives learned that sandi met greg at a hockey game in 1990. she pursued him, and he fell fast. >> she had a lot of energy, lot of spunk. >> reporter: you seem like you might be a little more low key. >> i am. >> reporter: was she a good complement to you? >> i think so. >> reporter: a fit? >> i think so, yeah. >> reporter: in late 1990, sandi got pregnant and the couple married. sean was born in 1991. daughter katie followed. for the next few years, the couple's life was hectic, but happy. but in early 1996, four months before sandi disappeared, the marriage hit a rough patch. greg moved out of the house. friends told the police there were money pressures among other things. what went wrong with the relationship? >> i think she said she couldn't talk to me, or communicate with me. and you know we'd seen a
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marriage counselor, and we were working on some stuff. and i think it was getting, you know, better. >> reporter: you wanted to get back together? >> yeah, i wasn't against that at all. >> reporter: but law enforcement developed a very different portrait of the marriage and the chances for reconciliation. kristin richardson and carla carlstrom are prosecutors with the king county district attorney. >> they were talking about divorce. they had gotten to the point. and it was sort of assumed that they would be divorced. so that was pretty recent before this had happened, within the month before that that decision had been made. >> reporter: and tn investigators discovered something else that troubled them. >> law enforcement learned that they had argued only the day before she'd gone missing. there had been sort of a big argument witnessed by other people at her place of work. so that too focused some attention on her estranged husband. >> argument was over money which
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was a frequent point of dispute for them. she had trouble. he had trouble sort of meeting their bills. >> reporter: investigators' questions were mounting. they had a couple with money problems. a troubled marriage. a husband who didn't search for his wife, and fought with her the day before she disappeared. it was time to sit down with greg johnson. how did they treat you in that first encounter, the police? >> yeah, they were, like, you know, "you did it, you know." you know, accusing me of, you know, killing my wife. told my sister that, you know, greg is, you know, did it. >> reporter: the usual suspect was starting to look like the right guy. >> coming up, greg and sandi's marriage. turns out it was more trouble than most people knew. >> she called me one time and just said it's getting really bad. it's to a point. and i'm just afraid. >> and then, a new development rocks the case. >> must have been a big red flag
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for police.
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>> reporter: sandi johnson was missing. police believed she'd been killed, and they were zeroing in on her estranged husband greg. his world had turned upside down. >> life changed fast. i mean, and i can tell you stories, you know, coming home from work and there's three or four tv stations in front of your house ready to do the 5:00 news. >> reporter: the more investigators talked to sandi's family and friends about the
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couple's on-the-rocks marriage, the more suspicious they became of greg. sandi had confided in her cousin gina boone that living with greg had gotten very difficult. >> she called me one time and just like, "it's, you know, it's getting too -- really bad. it's to a point and i'm just afraid." and i tried to get more information out of her, but she just said, "i can't talk about it." i just -- i said, "you got to do what you got to do." >> reporter: the evidence wasn't just anecdotal. a loud argument between the couple more than a year before sandi went missing had ended with police responding, and greg spending a night in jail. how bad did it get? >> how i got in jail, you mean? >> reporter: uh-huh. >> well, she came at me and i grabbed her by the arms and sat her down. i didn't hit her or nothing, and then she called the police and because she had -- there was marks on her arms -- any time there's a domestic dispute, cops are called, somebody goes to jail, so i'm
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the one who went to jail. >> reporter: investigators found the domestic violence incident troubling. and, when they looked for a possible motive they found one of the classics, money. were you able to collect a life insurance policy? >> i did, yes. >> reporter: how much was that? >> it wasn't that much, but -- >> reporter: do you have a number, or -- >> i know what it was. i'm not going to say. but it was a substantial amount of money, yeah. >> reporter: investigators were more and more convinced they had their man. a polygraph they gave greg a few days after sandi vanished was key. >> they asked me if i would be willing to take a polygraph, just to clear my name, or whatever. i said, sure. i had nothing to hide. what i know, was that the polygraph was inconclusive. so, i guess at that point, they thought it was me. they probably thought it was me before the polygraph. >> reporter: the police actually say you failed the polygraph test. >> yeah, i'm sure they did. >> reporter: so you're disputing that? >> i am.
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it was -- and -- yeah, it was inconclusive results on the polygraph. >> reporter: cops felt he failed it. and the results made them even more certain they were on the right track. king county prosecuting attorneys kristin richardson and carla carlstrom. >> greg had not done well on a polygraph test. so they asked if he would take another test. he called a lawyer. the lawyer said, "you need to stop talking to the police right now." and so he did. >> reporter: must've been a big red flag for police? >> yes. i think it was, whenever someone flunks a polygraph test, police get very concerned and suspicious and often want to go at that person harder and find out why. >> reporter: greg may have lawyered up but detectives used those polygraph results to turn up the pressure. they told your sister you failed the polygraph test? >> uh-huh, yes. >> reporter: why? >> i guess, they just wanted turn -- try to turn her against me. >> reporter: lot town were turning in that direction. in those first dark weeks after sandi went missing, her dear
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friend vicky fulkerson started to think greg was somehow involved. >> the police came to me and said certain things that would lead you to think that maybe he did it. >> reporter: what did they tell you that made you start to suspect greg? >> well, that he didn't pass the test. >> reporter: the polygraph? >> there was people at the work party had heard them fighting. just enough that it's like, "could he have done it?" >> reporter: cops were starting to think so. especially when they considered the domestic incident that put greg in jail, that argument at the dealership the night before sandi disappeared, and the possible money motive. given the history with greg, was the family immediately looking to greg as a possible -- >> uh-huh, yes. >> reporter: -- suspect in this? >> uh-huh, yeah. >> reporter: were there some family members convinced greg must have done this? >> i think a few were pretty -- you know, you got to put the blame on someone, 100%. >> reporter: how was sandi's family looking at you? >> there was a bunch that, you know, thought that i was the person. >> reporter: and you're telling
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everyone, "i didn't do this." >> right. >> reporter: and there are people who just are not believing you. >> yeah. and i get the fact that it's, you know, 90% of the time it's the husband or the boyfriend. i get that. but, it wasn't this time. >> reporter: did you feel, in this case, that you were target number one? >> oh, yeah. i was the only target. >> reporter: but greg johnson was wrong about that. clue by clue investigators were uncovering secrets of sandi's, things her estranged husband didn't know, that would provide them intriguing new suspects. coming up, detectives discover what sappedi's been hiding. a man named jeff. did he also have a secret? >> that was suspicious to police that he wasn't up front about that from the beginning. >> and then, a former colleague of sandi's. was he hiding something, too? >> cliff looked to be doing everything he could to present
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himself as a caring and concerned friend. we found out that that was not the real cliff reed. tiki barber running hambone!a barber shop?t hut! yes!!! surprising. yes!!! what's not surprising? how much money david saved by switching to geico. fifteen minutes could save you fifteen percent or more. who's next? cough doesn't sound so good. take mucinex dm. i'll text you in 4 hours when your cough returns. one pill lasts 12 hours, so... looks like i'm good all night! some cough medicines only last 4 hours. but just one mucinex lasts 12 hours. let's end this. i'm about to pop a cap of "mmm fresh" in that washer with unstopables in-wash scent boosters by downy.
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reporter: the search for the person responsible for the disappearance of sandi johnson from a seattle suburb was widening. cops had her husband, greg, in their crosshairs from the start, but, as they dug deeper into sandi's last days, they found other people they needed to check out. >> we had to look at everyone close to sandi at that point in time. >> reporter: investigators discovered that the recently-separated sandi had a friend named jeff kane she kept secret from her estranged husband. she was supposed to meet kane for lunch the day after she disappeared. cops soon learned there had been more than lunch on the menu. after work on that friday, sandi
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had popped by kane's house to touch up her tan. >> she was there the night before she went missing. she had used the tanning bed, i believe. and they were going to contact each other by phone the following morning. >> reporter: that revelation made kane the last person known to have seen sandi alive. cops brought him in for questioning. according to prosecutors he was alarmed after he learned sandi was missing. >> he was worried about that. and he tried to get a hold of her, and couldn't get a hold of her. tried to find her. and so he finally went over to her house and left a note on the door because he was worried because she had just not shown up for lunch. >> he was one of the last known people to have spoken to her on that friday. in fact i think she had spoken to him more recently than she'd even spoken to her husband. >> reporter: but when detectives re-interviewed sandi's friend, they grew more suspicious. it turned out kane hadn't been totally candid with them about the nature of his relationship with sandi. >> he initially held back that they had ever had a romantic or sexual relationship.
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that came out a little bit later which also was a little bit suspicious to police that he wasn't up front about that from the beginning. >> reporter: why did he hold back on that? >> i don't know. perhaps he was concerned about just in general she was a married woman. he didn't want that to get out. >> reporter: as they had with husband greg, cops put kane on a polygraph machine. he passed the test, and offered an alibi. cops told him he could go home -- for now. when they further laid out their timeline of sandi's last days, detectives discovered jeff kane wasn't the only man sandy was supposed to meet. there was another guy, a former coworker, named cliff reed, who had befriended sandi. sandi planned to stop by reeds home to pick up a present for her son the day before his birthday party. cliff reed told cops she never turned up. husband greg knew reed from when he had visited the house. >> i think the first i met him, he was going to fix my car for me. and then he stayed for dinner. >> reporter: what'd you think of him? >> you know, he seemed like a nice guy.
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>> reporter: on the face of it, greg's appraisal of sandi's coworker seemed right. detective strathy says sandi and cliff reed were drawn together by mutual need. did sandi see cliff as someone she could lean on for help, being a single mom at the time? >> i think sandi was going through a traumatic time in her life. she was separated from her husband, had some financial challenges, and cliff reed was someone at work that would listen to what she had to say would offer support. >> reporter: and he actually helped her financially. so he was there for her. >> cliff was there. he had given a loan to sandi of about $1,800 at some point prior to her disappearance. >> reporter: despite his apparent generosity there was something about cliff the co-worker the cops weren't buying. >> cliff looked to be doing everything he could to present himself to sandi as a normal and caring and concerned friend.
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we clearly found out, as we looked closer into cliff reed, that that was not the real cliff reed. >> reporter: in fact, reed had a troubling history with women. >> cliff didn't like women at all. cliff was a misogynist. and cliff had very bad names for women that he felt had done him wrong, and basically from what we could tell just had a sort of generalized hatred for the female person. apart from being sort of self-centered and narcissistic, he constantly thought that women were doing him wrong. >> reporter: but none of that was against the law. cops had no reason to hold him. weeks went by without an arrest, and all detectives had was a trio of suspects. as the investigation dragged on greg, now a single parent, was trying to get on with his life, working at boeing, and raising his two kids. did you think sandi was dead, in your heart?
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>> yeah. >> reporter: you accepted that? >> yeah. >> reporter: how hard was that? >> it was hard. >> reporter: months and then years passed, sandi's friends and family struggled to keep her in the public's memory. her good friend, seana barker took the lead. >> we tried to keep the story alive. every year the news media would come on the anniversary of her disappearance and try to talk to us and ask us. i tried to talk and keep the story in the news media. >> reporter: just before sean's 10th birthday, five years after his mother vanished, greg moved the family to las vegas. he had had enough of the seattle area and wanted a fresh start without a cloud of suspicion hanging over him. as sean grew up there, greg and his son talked a lot about sandi. did you have a lot of questions? >> yeah. i mean, like, why isn't my mom around? you know, who did it? like, why, you know -- why would this happen? >> reporter: and detectives back
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in washington state had no answers for him. with no body, no new leads, and no new suspects, the investigation was dead in the water. the case must have been growing colder by the day. >> it was. >> reporter: i'm sure you must have felt that way. >> absolutely. >> reporter: did you, at some point, feel we've got to give up on this, until something comes our way? >> yeah, on the other hand we knew, somewhere, some day, sandi would be found. and the hope was that, when that happened, there would be some type of evidence that would assist us in putting this case together. >> reporter: they were about to get their wish. coming up. all the men in sandi's life claim they didn't see her the day she disappeared. which one of them is lying? >> the neighbor saw her car, recognized her car parked
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crsugar is everywherets sugar shield and crest complete has a sugar shield to protect teeth from sugar found in everyday foods. crest complete. shield your teeth from sugar. so sugar may visit, but it's not sticking around. shhh! laughing) what's going on? gasp! you going to shut it down? this is totally going viral. i wanna go viral. going viral? get scrubbing bubbles, clean and disinfect. 20,000 views! what? oh, it looks so clean in here. reporter: it's hard to let go of hope. sean johnson could barely remember his mother, yet he never stopped imagining her coming back into his life. >> i just remember being there thinking, and like she's got to -- she's going to return sooner or later.
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you know, she has to, you know, walk through that door. >> reporter: but it was not to be. one august day in 2004, a highway worker in rural washington noticed something strange just off the road. it was a shallow grave. investigators recovered skeletal remains. dental records revealed it was sandi. >> i was in the 7th grade when -- i just remember, i come home from school and ask my dad, like, well -- you know, why is there reporters trying to talk to us or whatever. my dad explained to us that they had found her remains. >> reporter: finally, sandi's family had the cold comfort of a funeral. greg brought his kids back to washington for the service. it was a difficult day for everyone, especially greg. there were some at that funeral who still wondered if he had a role in sandi's death. how were you received at sandi's funeral? were some people angry you were there? >> i think there were some
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people that still didn't like -- didn't like me. you know, family members that didn't like me. the people that were behin in the beginning, those are the ones that i stayed with, you know, and hung out with. i didn't have time for those people that were against me. >> reporter: among the mourners at sandi's service that day were detectives from the cold case squad. the discovery of her bones had jump-started their investigation, and cops were now taking a cold, hard look at everything and everyone all over again. the coroner did an autopsy. investigators hoped they'd find something that would point them in the direction of sandi's killer. or at least tell them how she died. but no luck. >> there was so much decomposition and so little left that there was absolutely no way to tell what killed her. we could not say why sandi johnson died. and that's because she was so well-hidden for so long. >> reporter: where sandi's remains were recovered added another piece to the investigative puzzle. it fit the m.o. of the notorious
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green river killer, gary ridgway. he murdered scores of women in washington, and disposed of some of them in the area where sandi's bones were found. >> i do. >> reporter: ridgway's victims were almost all believed to be prostitutes. now, king county cops had to make sure there wasn't something they'd missed earlier about sandi. was it ever posed to her family? did she ever engage in prostitution? a hard question? >> i believe that a detective asked her mom that. and it was not well-received, as you can imagine. sandi was not a prostitute. and that would be heart-ripping to hear a question like that, even though it had to be asked. >> reporter: police then ruled out the green river killer. detectives circled back to the secret boyfriend, jeff kane. they came away convinced he had nothing to do with sandi's death. jeff kane was cleared. as for husband greg, who had done so many things that raised
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suspicion early on, ultimately he had an alibi that checked out. he'd clocked in and out of his job at boeing the day sandi went missing. colleagues had seen him there and after work he was with friends who vouched for him. finally, greg johnson was off the list. how well do you remember that moment where the police came to see you and said, "you're not a suspect anymore?" >> i remember it very well. it was a relief. it was a good day for me, it really was. >> reporter: that left sandi's friend from work, cliff reed. cold case detective jim allen decided to see if he could find some physical evidence tying cliff reed to the death of sandi johnson. it turned out the passage of time in the case gave police new tools. >> forensics had changed over the years, so there was the potential of testing a lot of things that wouldn't have been able to be tested back then, for dna specifically. >> reporter: they went back to where cliff reed had lived in
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1996, all these years later, and tore the place apart. they found what looked to them like a blood stain under the carpet. could it be something? >> we took all the carpet from his room. >> reporter: they still had sandi's teal green ford wagon. they ripped that apart too. >> we re-searched her car and collected some more evidence and had that tested to see if we could find anything. >> reporter: this sort of analysis churns slowly. in 2006 cold case detectives began working with prosecutors kristin richardson and carla carlstrom. investigators dug deeper into cliff reed's story. >> they were learning more, and more and more about cliff's lies, and sort of his relationship with sandi and some specifics about that day that didn't add up. >> reporter: for instance, sandi had taken that friday april 26th off work to get ready for sean's birthday. among her errands, she told friends, she was picking up a
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birthday present for sean from cliff reed. >> cliff reed never acknowledged that sandi was to come to his house that day or had ever come to his house that day. >> he said he had last seen her two weeks before. >> reporter: what's more, cliff reed's neighbor told police sandi must have been there that day. >> the neighbor saw her car, recognized her car parked outside his house. >> reporter: that was troubling to police. but more incriminating was this -- that same neighbor said he saw cliff reed driving sandi's car away from the apartment that day. and that grocery store lot where sandi's car was found? it was within walking distance of cliff's apartment, just over a mile away. cliff's neighbors remembered him walking home from the direction of the store the day she disappeared. cliff told detectives he'd gone out for some air. >> this was very much out of character, in speaking with the people that know cliff best. cliff reed was not the kind of person that would just willy-nilly go out for a walk. >> reporter: and they were very
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suspicious of this fact. cliff, who was notoriously messy, chose the day after sandy's disappearance to clean his apartment top to bottom. >> after she disappeared, he vacuumed the entire house. he rented a carpet cleaner, cleaned the house. he got rid of the vacuum bag. >> reporter: it turns out that cliff reed had a bitter history with two ex- wives. and police had learned about allegations of a violent episode cliff reed had with an escort he'd hired two months before sandi went missing. >> cliff reed was on top of her, strangling her, threatening to shoot her, groping her underneath her clothing. >> reporter: that case never went anywhere, but it raised red flags for the cops looking into sandi johnson's death. >> at that point we realized, "my goodness, could a similar scenario have played out at cliff's residence with sandi johnson being the victim? >> reporter: and the motive, police say they found one. cliff reed was obsessed with sandi johnson.
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>> cliff shared with friends that he had found the love of his life. >> reporter: reed's friends used words like enthralled, head over heels, to describe to detectives reed's feelings about sandi. he said he was going to marry sandy and had each bought a bigger car to haul h around in. trouble was the feelings, apparently, weren't mutual. >> she had expressed to at least one of her friends, that her frustration was growing, that he wanted more than she wanted, and it was never going to be that. >> reporter: it was just the day before she went missing that sandi had told a co-worker reed had become a problem and he needed to understand that she was not interested. police wondered whether sandi had chosen that morning when she went to cliff's house to get that gift to set him straight. and, if so, had she paid for it with her life? >> i think that sandi was probably the first attractive female that had ever been nice to him. and that's what did her in. he created this fantasy world around her because she was nice to him.
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>> and when she finally wised up and called it off and said, "nothing's going to happen," he killed her. >> reporter: for police, the pieces seemed to be falling into place in the investigation into sandi johnson's death, even as they waited for the forensic results to come back. meanwhile, her friends and family kept faith eventually there would be justice for sandi. did you start to feel again that maybe this isn't going to happen? >> i was hopeful. all i can say is i was hopeful. coming up, just as this case finally gets going, a major speed bump. >> how frustrating was that? >> very. >> and then, for this family that's been through so much, a heart-stopping moment. >> all you feel is just this rush of just, you know, hot blood. it was tough.
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reporter: investigators had been building their case against cliff reed and now it was decision time for prosecutors kristen richardson and carla carlstrom. in 2012, 16 years after sandi johnson vanished, police had plenty of circumstantial
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evidence. but years of forensic testing still could not link him to sandi's death. >> it came back zero. >> reporter: how frustrating was that? >> very. it would've been nice to have some dna. that would've been nice. but we had tried everything that we could. >> reporter: the prosecutors faced a tough choice. charge cliff reed with murder, and risk losing a potentially unwinnable case, or leave sandi's case unresolved. which as it turns out, it had happened before. back in the late '90s cliff reed had been briefly charged with sandi johnson's murder, but prosecutors back then thought the case was just too thin to go forward. >> the question always has to be is there any chance the case is going to improve if we wait. and in this case there was absolutely nothing left to be done. so no, it was not going to improve. it was now or never. >> reporter: they chose now. >> we try hard cases, and we're successful at it. >> reporter: after all they did have reed's lies, a neighbor who saw him driving her car, a
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witness who saw reed cleaning his house the day after sandi disappeared and, most importantly, his obsession with her. cliff reed was arrested in montana. he was extradited to washington state, charged with second degree murder. sean, who had last seen his mother when he was just five, was now grown up, a medic in the army, when he heard the news from one of his mom's friends. >> i got a call from her, and it just blew me away, you know. >> reporter: it must just flared things up again for you, though, emotionally. >> yeah. it's like reopening a cut, and then rubbing salt in it, you know. >> reporter: going to trial was a roll of the dice for both sides. prosecutors would have to win a difficult case with no forensic evidence. >> the biggest problem we had is that cliff managed to succeed in one crucial point and that is that he hid sandi's body.
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and we had no way to prove how she died. >> reporter: without that proof of how she died, it would be hard to say cliff reed had intended to kill sandi. for the defendant, there was also a risk that a jury would find the prosecutor's circumstantial case convincing. >> cliff reed and his attorney knew that he was facing a real chance of be-- being convicted of murder in the second degree which can carry up to 20 years. >> reporter: so early 2014 prosecutors put a plea bargain on the table. the 60 year old reed made his choice. >> how do you enter your plea today? >> guilty. >> reporter: they made a deal. cliff reed pleaded guilty, not to murder but to manslaughter. >> the good thing about a plea is that it avoids not only the risk of losing at trial or a hung jury, but the appeal and everything that drags on forever. and this family had to deal with this loss three times, first when sandi disappeared, second
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when her remains were found, and third when charges were filed. the case was stirred up all again. >> please rise. court is now in session. >> reporter: in april 2014, sandi's family was in court to see cliff reed sentenced. what was it like for you seeing him in that courtroom? >> all i could feel was just this rush of just, you know, hot blood, you know. it was just -- it was tough. it was tough. >> reporter: cliff reed got less than four years in prison, as mandated by washington law. how do you feel about that, the fact he's doing time, but it's not a lot? >> it's not a whole lot. the guy killed my mom, you know. everybody knows it. >> reporter: cliff reed's plea wasn't just any plea. it was an alford plea, meaning he would not be required to admit to killing sandi. in fact, when he had the chance to speak, cliff reed said something that outraged the family.
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>> sandi was a very good friend to me. she was one of the nicest people i've ever known, and i certainly did not kill sandi. >> reporter: do you feel like cliff reed got away with murder? >> yes. >> absolutely, absolutely. >> reporter: but sandi's family doesn't blame the prosecutors. >> they did what they could. >> i think they took on a big undertaking. i'm thankful. >> i believe they did more than their job. >> yeah. >> those two. >> the good news for sandi is the world knows cliff reed killed her. she did not abandon her children. she did not go missing. he killed her and put her in the woods. and that is worth something to know that and say that. >> reporter: two decades ago sandi johnson missed her son's 5th birthday. as a boy he wondered what happened to his mom. now he knows. sean is grown up and married. he got some of his mom's looks, but also her heart. he wants to become a detective,
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who helps other families like his own. it took so many years to finally get cliff reed. is that going to motivate you to be a great cop? >> it is. i wouldn't want anything to, you know, happen to cause so much pain to anybody else. >> reporter: while justice for sandi may not look quite like what anyone imagined, her family is taking solace in the beautiful person sandi was and the reflection they see of her in her children. your dad says that he sees your mom in you and in your sister. >> it's just 17 years of built-up emotion, you know. >> reporter: yeah, i know. >> well, 18 now. >> reporter: do you think she would be proud of you and what you've accomplished? >> i think she would. that's all for now.
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i'm lester holt. thanks for joining us. charge from an american civil rights icon. >> i don't see president-elect as a legitimate president. >> john lewis says the russians helped destroy hillary clinton's candidacy. >> i think the russians anticipated and helpeded this man get elected. >> my exclusive interview with congressman lewis. the national debate his comments have inspired and reaction this morning from donald trump's incoming chief of staff reince priebus, plus growing concerns about donald trump's coziness with vladimir put snien do you think the russians were behind hacking into our election? >> is vladimir putin a war criminal? >> should we ignore our history with vladimir put snin.
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>> dianne feinstein joins me to explain the probe into the probe into these allegations. >> and with the fbi's email investigation now under investigation itself, democrats go public with their anger at director james comey. >> the fbi director has no credibility. >> joining me for insight and analysis are rich lowery of the national review, helene cooper of the new york times and jeffrey goldberg of "the atlantic" and danielle pletka." welcome to sunday. it's "meet the press". >> from nbc news in washington this is "meet the press" with chuck todd. good sunday morning on this martin luther king jr. weekend and the last sunday of the obama presidency. even before john lewis' explosive statements denying donald trump's legitimacy as president, monday president-elect trump in effect
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challenged decades-old laws of nepotism by hiring jared kushner as a senior adviser tuesday. a dossier of mr. trump's ties to russia are published by the online site buzz feed. wednesday he calls a bizarre news conference where he called cnn fake news for reporting the existence of that dossier. thursday the justice department's inspector general of how fbi director james comey handled the hillary clinton investigation and on friday, an icon of the civil rights movement says he doesn't think president-elect trump is a legitimate president. we'll begin with part one of my interview with lewis and his comments about donald trump. >> you have forged relationships with many presidents. do you plan on trying to forge a relationship with donald trump? >> ii


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